A.E. Housman wrote this extraordinarily poem in 1895 (find other poems here). Of course it described the warfare of his century – Napoleonic Wars, The Indian Mutiny, The Boer War etc. But it is almost as if he can hear the echo of the 20th century’s drums already being carried into the end of the 19th.
Housman used the simplest poetic form – an ABA’B’ rhyming scheme – in less skilled hands, it would be childish doggerel – and sickeningly inappropriate. But the simplicity of form and rhyme actually contributes to the horror and the menace – making its sinister point simply but chillingly. What words could more aptly describe the battalions heading off to the Battle of the Somme than soldiers marching, all to die? For on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, at least 20,000 men were killed and 40,000 wounded. The battle lasted 4½ months and at least 1.2 million men from all sides were killed. And do you know what that destruction achieved – the allies advanced by 5 miles?
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.
Far the calling bugles hollow,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.
The painting is Mark Gertler’s The Merry-go-round (and currently on display in the Tate Britain, here in London). He painted it in 1916:
This work was painted at the height of the First World War, which seems to be its subject. Men and women in rigid poses, their mouths crying in silent unison, seem trapped on a carousel that revolves endlessly.
Gertler was a conscientious objector. He lived near London’s Hampstead Heath, and may have been inspired by an annual fair held there for wounded soldiers. The fairground ride, traditionally associated with pleasure and entertainment, is horrifically transformed into a metaphor for the relentless military machine. He explained, ‘Lately the whole horror of war has come freshly upon me’.
Official Tate Description
The 21st century looks no better. Heaven help us. Incredibly, though, heaven did: Titus 3:3-7